In what is likely the most controversial statement I have made in this blog’s infancy, I must admit that I did not care for the movie “God’s Not Dead”. That’s actually an understatement. I thought it was awful, and not just from a production standpoint (check out this review for a more complete explanation of my disdain).
Some of my favorite movies of all time are either explicitly or thematically religious (“Tree of Life”, “Donnie Darko”, “The Lord of the Rings” adaptations, to name a few) so please don’t take my thorough dismissal of “God’s Not Dead” as some sort of cliche or trendy antipathy (noun: a deep-seated feeling of dislike; aversion) towards Christian movies.
But in addition to the sub-par production and and thematic challenges (again, see this review), it also struck me as deeply untrue, at least on a personal level. While my college years brought about the onset of my embrace of evolutionary theory, they hardly followed the stereotypical narrative that paints the secular university as a predatory adversary to faith.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t take a lot of science classes. But I was a liberal arts major (English and Communications). And if any discipline has the reputation of being hostile to faith (particularly Christian faith) on a level that rivals that of the physical sciences, it’s the liberal arts/humanities. After all, the word liberal is literally in the name (this will be funny to some).
And yet my professors seemed to have an – albeit occasionally bemused – appreciation for how my faith informed my academic work. Jeff Metcalf, a professor for a handful of my literature courses, actually insisted that I make my faith a central part of my analysis. Vincent Cheng, who advised me on a handful of larger research projects (and instilled in me a love of James Joyce) saw faith as a powerful muse for the life of the mind. And I still, to this day, use insights taken from Howard Horwitz’s critical theory class in my theological studies.
So while the expansive reading and critical thinking I engaged in during my undergraduate years may have conditioned me to ponder my faith and its relationship to science anew, it certainly didn’t seek to undermine my beliefs, nor did it send me whimpering into the waiting arms of secular humanism.
But I did have two close friends walk away from faith while we were in college.
So while their apostasy was prompted by more than just a reconsideration of Charles Darwin’s infamous theory, the immediate fall out for me centered around the viability of God in light of evolution.
And it didn’t take me long to decide that choosing between them was a false choice, and that anyone who insisted on pitting one side against the other just has his or her head in the sand. All I needed to find was a few decently respected Christian intellectuals who affirmed some form of evolutionary theory without abandoning their faith. Not a difficult endeavor in the age of Google.
And just like that, my defense was made. With a few clicks of my keyboard I had become functionally agnostic to the “how” of creation and merely dogmatic about the “who”. After all, who cares how God made things as long as he’s the one who made them?
I think it’s human nature to react defensively when our guiding narratives are challenged. For Christians, especially the ones raised on nostalgically cartoonish depictions of the Genesis creation accounts, those guiding narratives are often instilled early. And while I saw my position as an enlightened, nuanced, and reasoned middle way, my response – at least at the time – to the existential crisis at hand was championed just as uncritically as that of those with whom I disagreed. It would actually be a few more years before I took on a more informed stance.
While serving as a pastor in Arizona, no issue got me “called into the principal’s office” more often than evolution. To be clear, I was given quite a bit of space to explore my personal convictions while at this church. And I was allowed to hold to my beliefs openly, provided that I was willing to present all sides of an issue and self-aware about the context in which I was sharing. No problem there, at least on this issue.
But, and perhaps understandably, it still caused some tension. The great irony is that I left far more firm in my position than when I arrived. And I may not have arrived at the strong stance I hold today had I not been pressed while at my former church.
It all started early in my time there when I was hanging out with one of the other pastors, a man who was and remains a very dear friend. I don’t remember how, but the topic of evolution came up and I expressed my ambivalence (noun: the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone) towards taking a strong stance one way or another. My friend, who is a staunch supporter of a very conservative position on the topic, challenged me on my causal stance, arguing that it was a very important issue for the church.
I took his exhortations to heart and resolved to give the topic a much deeper look than I had in college.
And here’s where the irony comes into play. As I studied the interplay between Christianity and evolution with greater fervor, I came away convinced of not only their compatibility, but also the veracity of evolutionary theory.
And that’s honestly as far as the story goes. In the four or five years since I began to study the topic more thoroughly I have become progressively more confident in my position, to the point that – as I mentioned at the onset of this discussion – I really don’t think about it much anymore. It’s a given for me.
But here’s the most important detail and one I stress anytime this debate comes up:
The theory of evolution could be disproven tomorrow (it won’t) and I would still argue that the Bible does not promote a literal, seven day creation account as advocated by many conservative Christians.
It’s not lost on me that this is perhaps the most provocative statement I’ve made yet, even more so than my categorical refusal to acknowledge “God’s not Dead” as a valuable cinematic achievement.
So let me be clear, I am of the opinion that not only the Bible itself, but Church history as well, gives us ample reason to doubt a literalistic reading of Genesis 1 (and 2) before the natural sciences are even taken into consideration.
That science then offers what appears to be a contradictory account of creation need not confuse or alarm us. We are instead free to be intrigued, excited, even awed by the natural wonders of creation, confident that God’s self-revelation to us through his Word (a big theme for future posts) is secure.
So to recap: I affirm evolution full stop. Human, macro, micro, all the categories. And I do not believe there is a true tension between Christianity broadly and the Bible specifically when it comes to this issue because I actually believe the Bible, properly considered, does not call for what I’m calling a literalistic reading of Genesis’ opening chapters.
Again, for some, these are big claims. And so I’ll devote a third (and for now final) post tomorrow unpacking them further. Hope to (metaphorically) see you there!